The Hockey News - Money & Power
AGE: 55 | TOP 100: 34 NHL EXECUTIVE VP, MARKETING & CHIEF BRANDING OFFICER
From social media to eSports, the NHL’s main marketing man has watched the digital revolution unfold during his three decades with the NHL. What’s he shooting for next? It’s all about the stars
GRAEME ROUSTAN: When we met 30 years ago, the NHL was much different than it is now. From a business point of view, can you tell us what it was and what it is today?
BRIAN JENNINGS: It’s almost hard to recognize when you think of where the NHL currently is compared to back when I joined in 1989. It was just such a different business environment. Not passing judgment, but everything was farmed out. Our licensing was farmed out, our sponsorship business was farmed out, and while that model can be effective and certainly risk-averse, at the end of the day there was this feeling we weren’t controlling our own destiny. On Feb. 1, 1993, Gary Bettman became the league commissioner and he had a completely different mandate. From that moment on (the approach) was: we’re going to control our own destiny, we’re going to have people at the league with their sole focus being on the businesses, and we’re going to bring in experts to run those businesses.
GR: We’re in a different world with social media and the expansion of other media platforms. Compared to 30 years ago, how would you describe the difference?
BJ: It’s almost like the digital revolution. It’s like looking at a business in analog or standard (definition) and then looking at it in digital or (high) definition. It’s so dramatically different. I certainly give Gary (Bettman) a lot of credit, and the owners who gave him the ability and mandate to go out and execute a strategic business plan. But it’s always about the fans and making sure they’re being served in ways they demand. We live in a world where there’s an insatiable appetite for how people consume the game, and if you don’t have a good understanding of who your fans are and where they’re migrating to, you’re going to miss some opportunities. When you look at today, there are all the different devices our games are streamed on, the whole international thrust, consumer products emotionally connecting fans to their favorite players and teams in ways that weren’t happening back in the early 1990s, and the storytelling. I always say the bedrock of entertainment is quality storytelling. Always has been, always will be.
GR: People are talking about eSports, gambling, they’re talking about all kinds of things that are outside the NHL’s core business. How much of the league’s time is spent looking at different revenue sources?
BJ: It’s really critical to any business. I think it was Peter Drucker who said, “The purpose of any business is to create a customer.” From the NHL’s perspective, it’s a fan. We’re always thinking, how do we become more relevant? How do we become more desirable to millennials or Generation Z? Something like eSports is important because kids are playing video games. So how do you partner with companies like EA Sports, who is making our game, and make sure that they tell the athletes’ stories, how do we put them in a position that fans are always coming back to the sport of hockey? Even
though (younger fans) are enjoying hockey a little bit differently than traditionalists would, look at the growth of the sport. So I think that’s really vital.
GR: From a business point of view, what does the next five to 10 years look like for the NHL?
BJ: We think we’re really well positioned. We’ve never been at a better time. We’re blessed with young athletes who are taking over the game with speed and skill and grace. They’re our stars, and they’re the ones that put fans in the seats. If you look at where the future’s going, it’s vitally important to make sure the game is keeping people’s attention, keeping them glued to their seat, keeping them glued to the TV set. We know we have the best athletes in the world, so we’re bullish. We feel our best days are ahead of us, and there’s a lot of room for growth.